ISSN 2330-717X

The Purpose Of Current Philippines Scientific Expedition To The Spratlys – OpEd


Amidst a ‘standoff’  between China and the Philippines near a disputed feature in the Spratlys, the Philippines is undertaking a government-sponsored marine scientific expedition to the area.  While billed as an advance in scientific knowledge –it may be –or may be perceived to be a soft assertion of sovereignty.

The “Predicting Responses between Ocean Transport and Ecological Connectivity of Threatened Ecosystems in the West Philippine Sea” (PROTECT WPS) is led by the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI) in coordination with the government’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. The project is funded by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources Biodiversity Management Bureau-funded project is the first joint activity by the three agencies.

According to a press release, “PROTECT-WPS will conduct biological and oceanographic research activities and surveys in some reefs and islands in the KIG-WPS [Kalayaan Island group West Philippine Sea] with the aim of generating baseline data and understanding changes occurring in threatened marine ecosystems.”

 Any contribution to the understanding of the Spratlys ecosystem and its interconnectivity with the South China Sea should be welcomed. But given its timing and the pre-expedition preliminary conclusion by one of its principal managers, it may be looked upon with some suspicion by China. According to Dr. Fernando Siringan, Director of the UP-MSI, the Spratlys are “essential for the mainland Luzon and Palawan.”  _ _”There is a “need to conduct periodic monitoring and research to strengthen this “hypothesis”– that there is a connection between the disputed features and the food that sustains majority of Filipinos”.

He asserts this based on “…data collected in the past two decades.” As a former oceanographer, I am unaware of any data that demonstrate a causal connection between the Spratlys ecosystem and the coastal or migratory capture fisheries of the Philippines.

Increasingly it seems facts are not necessary for environmentalists because the tenets of environmentalism are more about belief than fact.  I would support saving the Spratly ecosystem—or what’s left of it for its own intrinsic value.  The South China Sea is at the crossroads of the most biologically diverse region on earth – the Indo-Pacific.  Its islets and reefs harbor rich associations of Indo-Pacific flora and fauna – coral, mollusks, fish, seabirds and turtles, including some rare and endangered species. 

But some hypothesize that tuna, mackerel, scads, and coral reef fish stocks around the region are replenished from the Spratly area.  If so, these spawning grounds would be particularly important for coastal populations of adult fish that are rapidly declining. Indeed, some have suggested that these atolls, banks, and reefs are a genetic savings bank where commercially important fish and invertebrates (as capital) supply a constant flow of larvae (as interest) to areas of depletion. But this seems more belief than fact. Indeed, it is an hypothesis not an established scientific fact  and needs to be proven in an objective manner—not prejudicially “strengthened”.  It could be proved or disproved by genetic studies of fish larvae and fishery capture of adults over time. But it does not appear that this expedition will attempt to do that.

As PROTECT WPS Chief Scientist Deo Florence Onda puts it “In science, we emphasize that all ecosystems are interconnected and interdependent. We need to understand that if you need to secure young fisheries in the mainland, we need to understand what supplies it. And part of it is understanding the role of Kalayaan Island Group.”

I certainly agree. But what is the degree of interconnectivity –especially to the fisheries upon which many Filipinos depend? That is what needs to be evaluated.

Even if it is strongly connected to these fisheries, any efforts at environmental protection or rehabilitation of the Spratlys may be too little too late at least for this purpose.  China destroyed many coral reefs in the Spratlys in its state- sponsored binge of construction and in its allowance of the destructive ‘mining’ of valuable giant clams.  The other claimants of the features also engaged in construction on those they occupy. But long before their environmental and ecological depredations, fishers –particularly from the Philippines—engaged in very destructive muro ami,blast and poison fishing there over many years.  Pollution from passing ships also  contributes to damaging the atoll ecosystems. These facts do not excuse what China and others did in recent times, but if one is advocating acceptance by policy makers of cooperation in environmental protection, it is important to tell a balanced story rather than to single out any one country for blame. 

China has tacitly acknowledged its damage by initiating a program to restore the coral reef ecosystem. Again this may well be too little too late and the proof will be in the pudding. But it would be good if other guilty claimants followed suit.

Asked if the Filipino scientific team has a contingency plan in case they run into Chinese vessels during the expedition, Onda said all factors have been considered when they decided to push through with the mission.”It’s all been thought out, all things considered and we have a plan,” Onda said –but did not elaborate. Let’s hope so because China might consider its timing inappropriate and more of a publicity stunt.

Although China and the Philippines have a plethora of maritime disputes involving jurisdiction, resource ownership and environmental concerns, the current confrontation appears to be a sovereignty dispute. Despite an international arbitration panel’s ruling against China’s historical nine-dash line claim to much of the South China Sea, the claims of China to high tide features in the Spratlys remain just as valid as those of the other claimants including its claim to what it calls Zhōngyè Dǎo.  The feature is also claimed by Vietnam.  Each legitimate high tide feature is entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea which is under the owner’s sovereignty. According to the Philippines, the presence of 275 Chinese vessels near Thitu between January and March 2019 violated its “sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction”. It filed a diplomatic protest with China to this effect.  While these sovereignty disputes have generated serious incidents in the past—especially between China and  Vietnam– overall, China has more recently managed them fairly well.

The reasons given for the expedition are certainly valid in their own right—enhancing knowledge of the area; enhancing interagency cooperation; experience and education for younger scientists ; national pride; and perhaps indirectly demonstrating sovereignty. But proving that the Spratlys are a “seed bank” for major South China Sea fisheries will apparently have to await another day. To China, the timing of the unilateral expedition is unfortunate and may increase tension in an already fraught situation. Hopefully, the Philippines is not mixing science with politics as China has been accused of doing many times.

This piece first appeared in the IPP Review.

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Mark J. Valencia

Mark J. Valencia, is an internationally known maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia. He is the author or editor of some 15 books and more than 100 peer-reviewed journal articles. He is currently an Adjunct Senior Scholar, National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China.

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